Reflections on the Birth of the United States
On Sale: May 12, 2011
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The preeminent historian of the American Revolution explains
why it remains the most significant event in our history.
More than almost any other nation in the world, the United
States began as an idea. For this reason, Pulitzer
Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood believes that the
American Revolution is the most important event in our
history, bar none. Since American identity is so fluid and
not based on any universally shared heritage, we have had to
continually return to our nation's founding to understand
who we are. In The Idea of America, Wood reflects on the
birth of American nationhood and explains why the revolution
remains so essential. In a series of elegant and
illuminating essays, Wood explores the ideological origins
of the revolution-from ancient Rome to the European
Enlightenment-and the founders' attempts to forge an
American democracy. As Wood reveals, while the founders
hoped to create a virtuous republic of yeoman farmers and
uninterested leaders, they instead gave birth to a
sprawling, licentious, and materialistic popular democracy.
Wood also traces the origins of American exceptionalism to
this period, revealing how the revolutionary generation,
despite living in a distant, sparsely populated country,
believed itself to be the most enlightened people on earth.
The revolution gave Americans their messianic sense of
purpose-and perhaps our continued propensity to promote
democracy around the world-because the founders believed
their colonial rebellion had universal significance for
oppressed peoples everywhere. Yet what may seem like
audacity in retrospect reflected the fact that in the
eighteenth century republicanism was a truly radical
ideology-as radical as Marxism would be in the
nineteenth-and one that indeed inspired revolutionaries the
world over. Today there exists what Wood calls a terrifying
gap between us and the founders, such that it requires
almost an act of imagination to fully recapture their era.
Because we now take our democracy for granted, it is nearly
impossible for us to appreciate how deeply the founders
feared their grand experiment in liberty could evolve into
monarchy or dissolve into licentiousness. Gracefully written
and filled with insight, The Idea of America helps us to
recapture the fears and hopes of the revolutionary
generation and its attempts to translate those ideals into a
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